The Magazine

Riding with the Kossacks

Markos Moulitsas Zúniga and me.

Jun 26, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 39 • By MATT LABASH
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Las Vegas

WHOA! DID YOU JUST FEEL THAT? Did you just feel the earth stop spinning on its axis, then reverse its rotation? Did you feel the moon enter into its Seventh House, and Jupiter align with Mars? Did you feel Jesus stomp off in a snit, as He was replaced at the right hand of God by Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, aka Kos? As in the eponymous blog Daily Kos? As in the four-year-old progressive website that is galvanizing the netroots and igniting the People Powered Movement? As in the site that is reshaping the political landscape, uprooting the old order, and, in Kos's words, relegating those who'd stand in the movement's way "to the dustbin of history"? Oh--and which is also a place where people blog about themselves?

Well if you didn't feel that, it's probably because you weren't at the Riviera Hotel here on June 8-11, for the first YearlyKos convention. Not to rub it in, but you missed out. Not to brag, but I was there. Sure, there were times throughout the proceedings when I wished I was elsewhere. Maybe during some of the jibber-jabbery panels and roundtables and caucuses and workshops. Maybe during the "Sustainable Energy--Energize America" panel with Gov. Bill Richardson. I mean no offense, Bill. Maybe America does need other kinds of energy besides People Power. But do I really want to sit around a dingy conference room talking about renewable fuels when I'm in SinCity?

Maybe I'd have liked to be at the blackjack tables, or to see a Danny Gans show, or to hang out at the Palms Hotel pool where all the women have brand-new breasts and all the meatheads keep feeling their triceps every few minutes to make sure they haven't shrunk since the last inspection. Maybe there were panels that made me cry out for my mom, like "MetaKos," moderated by Kos, which caused blogger Skippy The Bush Kangaroo to describe his dispatch from the conference as "blogging about people talking about people blogging about blogs. Did your head explode yet?" Maybe I yearned to be down the street at Gilley's at the Frontier casino, which promises "Cold Beer, Dirty Girls, Mud Wrestling Live, Bikini Bull Riding." I mean, after all, we People-Powered types cannot live on Kos alone.

But I stayed at YearlyKos, and I stayed because I had a little laminated rectangle around my neck that said "YearlyKos Convention," but which might as well have read "Press Pass to History." Because if you'd had ringsiders to watch Hammurabi inscribe his Code in black diorite, or Luther tack his 95 Theses to the door in Wittenberg, you wouldn't have played hookie at the Frontier, watching dirty girls mud wrestle bull riders.

No sir, you'd watch history get made. Because before history becomes history, it has to be a moment in time. And if I could cast the convention into song, I might very well make it Whitney Houston's "One Moment in Time." Or maybe one of Kos's selections, since he's also a piano composer. Maybe his 1996 track entitled "Solipsistic Affirmations." Either Whitney Houston or Kos--maybe I'd have Whitney Houston sing, with Kos accompanying her on piano.

You could read about this history being made, too. But not in some jive, dead-tree history book. I read about it in real-time pixels--what we in the People-Powered community call "live blogging." It means blogging something as it's happening, rather than after it happens--or even before it happens, which one blogger told me is called "predictive blogging." I read about the history that was being made in all-star blogger SusanG's Daily Kos diary. She wrote it in the middle of the convention, in a post she entitled "Yearly Kos: The Magic of People Power Made Manifest."

"We are hungry," she wrote, "hungry for each other in person." Easy, SusanG, the World's Fare Buffet is just down past the Capri rooms. (Sorry, we netroots types like to kid each other.) She went on to call it "pure magic," saying, "We are here. We are at the gates. We will no longer remain passive and meek in order to court favor. We, the people, are coming to power slowly and indefatigably, here in Vegas, and here on the blog. We have arrived."

And they have, too, as evidenced by the massive media turnout. There were tons of them. You couldn't tell where the netroots ended and the media began. Sometimes, if you were a journalist, and you were trying to interview someone in the hall, you'd have to first give them the once over to see if their netroots were showing. Otherwise, you might end up accidentally interviewing Maureen Dowd. It's like SusanG wrote: "It seems like every fourth person you run into is here covering the phenomenon of . . . us. We're worth it, too. We are something else."

You tell them, SusanG. You tell them why the politicians from Barbara Boxer to Wes Clark are turning the Riviera into a giant kissing booth. You tell them why prospective Democratic presidential candidate Mark Warner rented out the observation tower of the Stratosphere Hotel to toast you with sushi and "Kosmopolitans" and chocolate fountains and Blues Brothers and Elvis impersonators and laptop-shaped ice sculptures. You tell them why the New York Times sent six people and TheWeekly Standard sent two (flood the zone!). Never mind SusanG, I'll tell them. I'll tell them that it's because the Kossacks, as they call themselves, are happening now. They are so of the moment that a moment ago, when I wrote that they were happening now, I was sort of predictive blogging. But that was then, this is now. So don't blink or you'll miss it, because it's happening.

Okay, not all of them are happening now. Not all the ones wearing Howard Dean T-shirts, for instance. Not all the ones hanging on former Dean consigliere Joe Trippi's every word in the "Using the Blogosphere Workshop." Not all the ones who are memorizing the Democracy For America handout, which contains tips from Zephyr Teachout, Dean's former online guru, who dispenses advice like "Draft drunk, edit sober" and "People like stories and poems and songs--they like DJ's--you're the DJ for this effort." These people were happening now about three years ago. They're yesterday's now. But now, they're ready to be today's now.

Don't misunderstand--the thousand or so conferees aren't all Deaniacs. A lot of them are just good, honest-to-God activist bloggers who like their politics progressive and their sandals with low heels. Now, see, that was a stereotype. And Kos warns the Kossacks about stereotypes. He's always getting stereotyped, in fact. The media are always trying to turn him into the leader of some creepy cult, because the media are unfair to Kossacks. Just like they are to the Moonies and the Scientologists.

Kos doesn't even like being the L. Ron Hubbard of the progressive blogosphere, which everybody just assumes he is because it's his face front and center in a Ned Lamont Democratic primary commercial against Joe Lieberman, or because he term-limits his all-star bloggers (or "frontpagers"), or because it's his name on the website, and the conference, and the tote bags, and the beanies, and the hoodies, and the organic sustainable cotton T-shirts.

I mean, sure, some cynics--I didn't meet any at YearlyKos, but I'm sure they're out there--would say this is a hype, like Internet IPOs or Vanilla Coke or Ross Perot. There are guys like Daily Standard contributor Dean Barnett who've reported that Daily Kos, which everybody assumes is growing by leaps and bounds, actually went from 23 million visitors in one month last fall to 16 million in May. There's evidence like the recent Gallup poll which shows that blog reader growth was "somewhere between nil and negative in the past year," that reading blogs ranks at the bottom of online activities, and that only 15 percent of the public reads blogs, even though there are over 40 million of them, meaning a lot of bloggers are talking to themselves. But Kos wants you to know this is a real, enduring movement not centered around his cult of personality. It's about non-hierarchical netroots, it's about "the volunteers." Just like it was in the Reform party, a vibrant, healthy organization that, even after Ross Perot left it, still dominates American politics to this day.

Kos doesn't even like doing media. When you see him chatting with the New York Times (which reported he had a media coach) or going on Meet the Press or doing a photo shoot in the halls of the Riviera, sure, he looks like he's kind of enjoying it. But reluctantly. He said as much on his blog the other day. He said, "The media glare is not something I crave." And I think he means it. After all, he said it in a diary entry that was facetiously titled "It's all about me." It was 1,100 words long, painstakingly analyzed his media coverage, and was all about him.

But that's the media for you. Unfair, unbalanced, and afraid of their own obsolescence. Because that's what the dead-tree media do. They have their stories written before they get off the plane. They need to fit your round peg into their square hole, if I may work blue since we're here in Vegas. Take the Kossacks, for instance. I mean yeah okay, they're bloggers. They live and die by the blog. They blogged in between panels and during panels and some even while they were moderating panels. The hallways were clotted with people sitting on the floor, click-clacking laptops in a blogging bacchanal. They were blogging every which way: one-handed blogging, blogging their brains out, blogging from behind.

But other than that, the stereotypes don't hold. "What is amazing about us in the flesh is our diversity," wrote SusanG. And she's right, it's evident. Like at Pastor Dan's Interfaith Service on Sunday morning, which featured "greetings from faith traditions." They had a Christian, a Jew, a Buddhist, a pagan, a Unitarian, and an atheist. And it wasn't the setup to a joke! They didn't walk into a bar or anything! An atheist! At an interfaith service! That's diversity!

I mean, sure, almost everyone at the conference was white. But they were different shades of white. Some were conference-room clammy white. Others were liquid-crystal-display blue-ish white. But there were both white men, and white women. Loads of 'em. And they weren't all 19 years old and wearing pajamas and fresh from Dungeons and Dragons matches in their mothers' basements. The average age looked to be about 40-45. These are people with lives and families and jobs, even if some of those jobs have titles like "pro bono philosopher."

And after moving among the netroots for three and a half days, I can say with some confidence that they're not Dungeons and Dragons players. That's so '80s, and so unfair. They're better than that. They're more World of Warcraft types, the kind of Night Elves who aren't afraid to descend the holy mountain of Hyjal to wield their mystical powers in the fight for the survival of Azeroth. So much for stereotypes.

SOMETIMES THE ONLY WAY TO GET AROUND THE MEDIA is to go through them. That can be hard for bloggers. Take away their narcissism, their lust for attention, and their ravenous appetite for self-congratulation (Daily Kos's Hunter recently wrote about the "absolute brilliance of some of the voices we've got as leading lights of the progressive blogosphere") and they're a meek lot. Many of them have faces made for the blogosphere. Still, their public is calling. "I'd rather not be on TV, but I don't think I can avoid it," said one blogger.

So it was good to see the netroots get forced out of their blogger shells at the Pundit Project Training, which was run by the Center for American Progress and led by (Name Redacted) and (Name Redacted). As I came into the room and took a seat next to National Review's Byron York (or, as some of the conventioneers liked to call us, "The Enemy"), a volunteer came over and told us that we really shouldn't even be in the workshop, but that if we stayed, we couldn't use names or quotes or descriptions or any of the things that the corporate media like to use for those things they do called "stories."

We talked (Gender Redacted) out of it, for the most part, until this nameless, sexless person agreed that we could quote people and describe them, just not use names or identifiers. Because that's what the netroots are about, ultimately. They're about transparency, about honesty, about going on background instead of off the record.

It can be easy to forget in the middle of a People Powered Movement, a revolution if you will, that sometimes the revolution will be televised. And not just on youtube.com or your grubby little website either. Sometimes, you need to go on Chris Matthews and knock a few heads. And when you do, there are things you should know, according to the workshop handout.

You should ask the booker, "Will it be acceptable to interrupt the host?" Never get angry or strident--that's a tough one for the netroots. Guys, blue shirts look best, and accept makeup if the studio offers it. Ladies, don't dress like Ann Coulter. Cover up for God's sake, preferably with a neutral-colored jacket and a bright shirt.

When the bloggers take turns role-playing on camera, they seem almost apologetic about their bloggerishness. "I have dimples, you can't see them--I have so much facial hair," says one. But the workshop wasn't just about constructive criticism: Smile, keep your hands out of the box, look at the camera, not the monitor. It was also about constructive celebration, celebrating oneself, one's own netrootedness, one's own bloggerhood.

After going two or three minutes without hearing bloggers praised as a species, one blogger in blogger glasses asks the trainers if there's anything that bloggers naturally do right that "attracts producers to them." Yes, say the trainers. It turns out bloggers become experts on everything, they are not afraid to "speak directly." Also, they tend not to be evasive and are generally comfortable with conflict. Also, they're truth-tellers. Also, says one trainer, they have "the irreverence, the wit, the research, and a certain kind of attitude that is greatly needed on the progressive side." It's important, therefore, for them to be who they are. "You're like the new cool kids on the block," says one trainer. "You should leverage that."

It is a pretty heady time for bloggers. Take Ellie Perelli, a 78-year-old woman who used to be a "lurker" (a reader only) but who has become a full-fledged Kossack, having just posted her first diary under "momster." She's now an unofficial mascot of the site. Ellie didn't even know how to blog. But shortly after our Mother Talkers Caucus the other day, headed by Kos's wife who runs mothertalkers.com, a website featuring "rants and raves on modern motherhood," a woman named Shannon "took me upstairs and showed me how to do it." I ask Ellie what it felt like to blog for the first time, upstairs with Shannon. She laughs naughtily. "Satisfying," she says. "Exciting. Like I just opened a Christmas present and it was everything you wished for."

In these circles, there's lots of pressure to blog, to say something, anything, and to say it loudly and often. Take my new friend Alex Barrio, whom I met when he headed the Student Caucus I attended. He called the meeting to order by saying, "Before we get started, let's all grab the hand of the person next to you." Then he said he was just kidding--he was trying to scare the reporter. I wanted to hug him at that moment. I've been to lots of these gatherings over the years, and holding hands is some of the lighter physical contact I've been asked to participate in.

One day, in the hallway, Alex offers a confession: "I've read the blogs. But I'm a lurker." He says this with some shame, as if he's just admitted that he hands out porn at preschool bus stops. He's decided, however, that it's time to get more directly involved, so he registered as a user with Daily Kos. He's immediately allowed to comment on other people's diaries, but there's a one-week waiting period before he can write a diary of his own. (It's kind of like buying a handgun.) So instead, he borrows the handle of Luke McSweeney, a 28-year-old nuclear safety engineer who posts under "Cream Puff."

We take a seat at a table near the registration desk, and Alex agrees to let me watch him get his blog cherry popped. He pulls some notes he's scrawled out of a pocket, and focuses on the screen before him with laser-like intensity. He is oblivious to noise and the color commentary I'm providing to my tape recorder.

He is uninterested when Jodi Leib, an attractive woman from my Abortion Roundtable meeting, stops by to bend my ear about how we need to "create healthy sexual attitudes" and about how men need to "love their sperm, love their bodies." He doesn't pay any mind when she shares with me the lyrics to a song she wrote, "Love is Mystical": Love, love, love / All our love is mystical / Love, love, love / Sexual is mystical. "Love your sperm!" I say to Alex, trying to get him to join in the love-fest. "I'm looking forward to my vasectomy," he says, without looking away from the computer.

Alex has some unfinished thoughts about the need for more students at the Student Caucus, and he's got to get them out. He is a student at the University of Central Florida, but it seems like he was one of the only students in his caucus. The rest were pros from places like the DNC and the Progressive Patriots Fund, trolling for young voters like online predators, because they've heard the kids are really hep to this thing called the Information Superhighway.

Alex is no top-of-the-brainpan blowhard. He labors. He crafts. He edits and reedits and then passes the computer to Cream Puff and another friend who blogs under "Shlomo Boudreaux, the Cajun Jew" for more copy-editing. "What are you going to title it?" I ask Alex. "Student caucus," he says. "Doesn't exactly grab you by the lapels. Doesn't say 'revolution,'" I helpfully offer, being in the words business myself. He goes instead with "YearlyKos Student Caucus--Students needed!" Much better.

HE HITS "SEND," we sit and intently watch the feedback line as if we are waiting for a red light to change. It says "0 comments." Sometimes that big donut just lies there and mocks you, makes you feel as though you're spitting in the wind, as if your voice isn't being heard. But then it changes to "1 comment." It's from "jlove1982," who says she would've loved to have "networked with people" and that hopefully next year's convention will be "somewhere closer to the east coast. But good work." Success! Validation! People Power!

But all the Kossacks aren't as deliberative or scrupulous as Alex. Take Pontificator. I don't know him, but I've read his work online. He recently did a predictive blog about a subject I know a little something about--me. He wrote about my piece, this piece, a week before it came out. His diary was entitled "Prepare for the Matt Labash YearlyKos Hatchet Job Article."

That hurts, Pontificator. Why do you have to prejudge? Hear me now, Pontificator, if that's your real name: WORDS CAN WOUND. He and the 69 commenters on his post purported to know everything about my piece, along with my comings and goings at the convention, without knowing much of anything. They didn't know that I get it. That I understand it. That I plug into People Power. That I, too, am People and have Power within me.

But how would Pontificator know that? He just posts from his digital echo chamber. He called me "that scowling unshaven frat boy some of you may have seen skulking around the convention grounds." Not true, you lying sack of pontification. I wasn't skulking, I was practically skipping, as you would if you were headed to the "Hot Topic of the Day featuring a panel of top bloggers" discussion. Plus, I was never in a frat. Plus, I shaved every single morning with my Schick Quattro, which is designed "for the guy who wants everything . . . except irritation."

The commenters were even worse. Circle said that I "smelled like judgment." No I didn't, I smelled like Acqua Di Parma, a symbol of Italian elegance favored by Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant. Shayera said that I was sitting at her table at the Valerie Plame panel, that I got up in the middle and left for 20 minutes, returning with a USA Today that I read for the rest of the panel. "I saw that too," wrote Buzzer. "What a f--ing jerk," said Sally in SF. Except for one problem: I was only at that panel for about 5 minutes, left, and never came back inside. Nor did I ever have a USA Today. Must've been a different Matt Labash from The Weekly Standard. Hey, Shayera, good thing the blogosphere is here to check our facts.

Then there were the buttercups from my Abortion Roundtable. They practically stoned me after forcing me to admit I was pro-life. Some were rude enough that other people at the roundtable later apologized to me on their behalf. But somehow, I was the jerk for answering their questions. In a comment, Elise called me a "jackass" and said I "coughed rudely throughout the discussion (without covering his mouth!)."

Faboo claimed I threw a "tantrum about not being able to record the abortion roundtable." But nothing remotely close to that ever happened. I never asked to record, I was never asked not to record, and I did in fact record. Annrose, who runs abortionclinicsonline.com, and who moderated the roundtable, says I "blushed in that slimy way" when I was asked if I always use contraception when I don't want to procreate, and that I couldn't say yes. Actually, after stammering because of the presumptuousness of the question, I did say yes. The reason I was blushing, Annrose, is that you told me I was "too cute to be pro-life." Twice. (Call me, Sweet Cheeks.)

To be fair, the commenters reacting to Pontificator's post did get around to more important topics, like Byron York's cellphone. "For the record, Byron York's cellphone rang during the Plame panel," said QuickSilver. Shayera said it rang either "two or three times. And I'm sure about that." QuickSilver just had to know if York checked his caller ID before he answered it. He did, says Shayera of the man she called Byron "big hair" York. "I was two tables back and to the right, so I had a perfect view."

QuickSilver, Shayera, we salute your reporting. Stellar stuff. Thanks for showing us the way. Thanks for not just working it out in workshop, where the words disappear into the ether. But for putting it down, in black and white, where it can be read forever by the netroots, who need something to read while "Crashing the Gate," as Kos put it. And we can talk about this and so much else on Daily Kos. About the netroots and People Power and Byron York's Byronic locks and cellphone habits. And we can talk, and talk, and talk some more, even when we've run out of things to say.

Matt Labash is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.